CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — SpaceX brought home four astronauts with a midnight splash in the Gulf of Mexico on Friday, capping the busiest stretch yet for Elon Musk’s taxi service.
The three American astronauts and a German in the capsule were floating off the coast of Florida near Tampa less than 24 hours after leaving the International Space Station. NASA expected them to be back in Houston later that morning.
“It was a great ride,” said Raja Chari, the capsule’s commander. As for the reintroduction of gravity, he noted, “Only one complaint. These water bottles are super heavy.
Chari, Tom Marshburn and Kayla Barron of NASA, and Matthias Maurer of the European Space Agency, emerged from the capsule less than an hour after the splash, waving and giving a thumbs up as they were jostled in chairs wheels for medical checks.
Their departure from the space station on Thursday was bittersweet, as they embraced the seven astronauts who remained there.
“It’s the end of a six-month mission, but I think the space dream continues,” Maurer said.
SpaceX introduced its American and Italian replacements last week, after making a charter trip to the station for a trio of businessmen earlier in April.
That equates to two crew launches and two splashdowns in just one month. Musk’s company has now launched 26 people into orbit in less than two years since it began ferrying astronauts for NASA. Eight of those 26 were space tourists.
SpaceX’s William Gerstenmaier, vice president, acknowledges that it’s “a pretty exciting time.”
Just five hours after the splashdown, the company founded by Musk in 2002 launched a new batch of its own internet satellites known as Starlinks from Cape Canaveral. There were 53 of the flat-panel mini-satellites in this pre-dawn load.
“Satellites are cool, but people flying are a little special and a little different, and the team here understands that,” he told reporters. “There’s a sense of relief and a sense of accomplishment that you know you’ve done something right.”
NASA is more impressed than ever, given SpaceX’s unprecedented pace. The only issue of note on the last flight was a mechanical nut that came loose and drifted away from the SpaceX capsule after Thursday’s undocking. Officials assured everyone that it would pose no danger to the space station.
“Look at all this work over the past month,” said Kathy Lueders, NASA space operations mission chief. “I really want to personally thank SpaceX for just, wow, just doing such seamless operations on all of these missions.”
The astronauts said their mission was highlighted by the three visitors and their ex-escort astronauts who passed through in April, opening the side of the NASA station to paying guests after decades of resistance.
On the downside, they faced a dangerous spike in space junk after Russia blew up a satellite during a missile test in mid-November. More than 1,500 shrapnel spilled into Earth’s orbit for years to come.
As the war in Ukraine caused tension between the United States and Russia, the astronauts supported their Russian teammates, and vice versa. Flight controllers in Houston and Moscow also continued to cooperate as always, according to NASA officials.
As he stepped down from command of the space station earlier this week, Marshburn called it a “place of peace” and said international cooperation will likely be its lasting legacy. Russia’s Oleg Artemyev, the new commander, also stressed the “peace between our countries, our friendship” in orbit and described his teammates as brothers and sisters.
There are now three Russians, three Americans and an Italian up there.
It was Marshburn’s third spaceflight, and the first for the three returning with him. Chari and Barron’s next stop could be the moon; they are among 18 American astronauts selected for NASA’s Artemis moon landing program. Two other members of this elite group are now at the space station.
The Associated Press Health and Science Department is supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.